Friday, 2 August 2013

Top Reasons to Love Birding in Colombia

1.   The challenge.

It might seem strange to put this as #1 but birding in Colombia is challenging in the best ways. Although there are some species that are unmistakable and obvious, if you are trying to find birds yourself (rather than rely on a guide), identification can often be really tough. Groups such as the Tyrant Flycatchers, with 203 species especially provide a lot of head-scratching even with excellent views. I'll admit that I just give up on some of them as just too tough for now until I have more experience.

There is no doubt I've had to improve my observation skills a great deal. It has sometimes taken 3 or 4 good sightings for me to be confident in my ID and I have many "probables" that won't make it to my list.

I'm much more reliant on taking decent notes though I've still not mastered writing neatly in the field! The need for comprehensive and accurate descriptions of birds rather than just pictures is much more apparent to me here. Hopefully they'll publish books like Hilty & Brown electronically one day to avoid the problems of traveling with such heavy books!

The need to learn the calls and songs is more obvious here as well, with so many to master it takes time and patience even using online resources like Xeno-Canto and a decent mobile phone in the field. I'm still a little uncomfortable using playback of calls sometimes but it's often the best way to see some skulking birds, of which there are many in Colombia! Of course, you have to have ID'd the bird first to use playback.

I´ve learned the value of photos as record shots here - although it is often very hard to find comparison photos of some species on the web! The large number of subspecies can also provide a challenge for some species.

Azara´s Spinetail - Synallaxis azarae - Often heard but hard to see and photograph
Apical Flycatcher (Myiarchus apicalis) - a Colombian endemic best identified by its call. 
Overall, despite still being a novice neotropical birder, I feel I've improved my skills immensely since coming to Colombia 18 months ago and that gives me a great sense of satisfaction.

2.    The surprises

Although there can be quieter moments, there is always a great possibility of seeing something unexpected. Many of the birds here are very local. Of course the amazingly varied geography and local micro-climates have lead to great diversity of species in this country. Also, sadly, many of the mountain habitats here are fragmented but that does lead to some common species having very patchy distribution. You can find even endangered species turning up in new places. (Post-script - like the endangered endemic Chestnut-bellied Hummingbird that turned up on our balcony just before we left)

With very few birders and a huge area to cover it's inevitable that many species are under-recorded and even excellent tools like the Cornell Neotropical Birds distribution maps will not be totally reliable.

Add to that the fantastic array of migrants that arrive in Colombia each year. It is a real treat to be in the wintering area of these species and during passage, when who knows what might turn up anywhere.

Russet-throated Puffbird (Hypnelus ruficollis) - sat perched for easy photos

Rufous-tailed Tyrant (Knipolegus poecilurus)

It's a wonderful experience to discover so many birds myself, and quite different from my birding in the UK where it´s much harder to find a real surprise.

3.    The colours

Drab birds can be very pleasing too but Colombia has some spectacularly colourful families of birds. My favourites are the tanagers. In one flock you can get 7 or 8 species, each with bright colours.

The toucans too are stunning birds and a great range of colours with 22 species. The Keel-billed Toucan has just amazing colours in the beak.

Highland Motmot (Momotus aequatorialis)
Collared Trogon - female (Trogon collaris)
Parrots, Trogons, Woodpeckers, Motmots, Barbets and Manakins all add bright colours which definitely makes seeing a new bird really special.

4.    Hummers

I can't deny I've developed a huge fondness for hummingbirds. They´re often challenging to see well but highly rewarding to study, especially for their acrobatics and feistiness. With 162 species there are plenty to choose from, but I still find the common ones fun to watch. They seem to pop-up in all kinds of places too, so great for brightening up a dull day. To see one in the gardening section of the DIY store in the centre of Bucaramanga is a treat.

Green-fronted Lancebill (Doryfera ludovicae)
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird (Amazilia Tzacatl) - posing on our balcony 

5.    Birds everywhere
 Colombia has more bird species than any other country (more than 1800 species). But also there are still large numbers of birds, even in more developed areas. It's always worth keeping your eyes open wherever you go. In the mountains, agriculture is not often very intensive and there is space left for birds and other wildlife. Of course, much habitat has been lost, and many species have suffered significant declines, but many still remain in good numbers. 

As much of the country has a warmer climate year-round, the open-air living allows you to do more birding and also see birds whilst doing other things. I've seen 83 + species from my balcony, many interesting birds from restaurants and even a few nice ones whilst I've been swimming in the open-air pools.

Here's my recommendations to help your birding if you come from a temperate region like the UK to Colombia for an extended period.

Get a decent book:
  • A Guide to the Birds of Colombia by  Hilty and Brown is the bible, but is awaiting a new issue.
  • Birds of Northern South America by Restall etc in 2 volumes is also very good. 
  • Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia published by ProAves is very useful in the field
  • Birdwatching in Colombia: - Jurgen Beckers and Pablo Florez - a site-guide for Colombia to be published in Nov 2013.
and copies of free publications like these. I can send you a copy of these.
  • Travel guide to Birdwatching Sites in Colombia
  • Guia de las Especies Migratorias de la Biodiversidad en Colombia, Vol 1 (Guide to the Migratory Species of Colombia). In Spanish but very useful.
Make use of  internet resources like Cornell Neotropical Birds is good for descriptions and distribution maps, The Internet Bird Collection is very good for comparison photos. Birdforum Q & A can help with some photo IDs.

Learn as many calls as you can with Xeno Canto and download them to a smartphone.

Take plenty of fieldnotes. A recorder app on a phone might be a good idea to save trying to write the notes in a rush. Try to get record shots, though it can sometimes get in the way of taking proper notes.

Many Colombian birders use Facebook and it's a good way to see photos of local birds.

Don't forget to learn those latin names if you're going to communicate with local birders. There are often many different names for the same species in Spanish.

And finally, use suncream ;-)

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